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As High Holy Days near, some synagogues abandon 'pay-to-pray' tradition
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The decades-old practice of requiring a donation to attend a Jewish synagogue on the faith's most sacred worship days is being challenged by some rabbis who want to welcome participants without charge. - photo by Mark Kellner
Since the 1950s, the end of summer has signaled two things for American Jews: The advent of a worship period known as the High Holy Days, and making certain one has a reserved seat to worship during the most sacred period of the faith's annual calendar.

The High Holy Days include Rosh Hashana (Hebrew for "Head of the Year") on Sunday evening and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which commences at sundown on Sept. 22, as well as the eight-day feast of Sukkot, or "booths," commemorating the 40 years Jews spent in the desert following their exodus from Egypt.

Many synagogues traditionally have reserved seats on these in-demand worship days for members who have paid annual dues, offering remaining seats to visitors willing to make a financial donation, often at a set price.

But charging to worship is becoming a new question for many of America's Jewish congregations. Although ticket-selling is decades old, changing attitudes among worshippers have prompted a growing number of synagogues to forgo what had been a fundraising tradition in their ranks. One rabbi said dropping the fees was a way to reach out in their communities, while others may be eyeing the success of Orthodox groups such as as Chabad Lubavitch, which says it has never charged for participation on the holy days.

"We don't want you to feel a need to pay to pray, we want you to feel welcome. This is true, grass-roots Judaism," said Chabad Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie of Yorba Linda, California.

No plate passing

Unlike Christian churches where donations are often taken during services, observant Jews are not allowed to handle money on a weekly Sabbath or on a holy day, so passing a collection plate or setting up a donation box would be out of the question, said Ron Wolfson, Fingerhut professor of education at the American Jewish University in Bel-Air, California.

"What evolved in American synagogue life was the concept of dues as an annual contribution," Wolfson explained. "As the community grew, particularly in larger Jewish communities, where you had to have some sort of control over who was coming and how many seats did you have, the idea of tickets linked to (membership) dues kind of evolved as a way for crowd management."

Wolfson, who attends an Encino, California, synagogue, added, "When it's 110 degrees (outside) and you want air conditioning, someone has to pay the bill."

But as American Jews became more assimilated in the surrounding community, however, the tradition of selling tickets became less attractive as a fundraising vehicle. The Pew Research Center, in a 2013 survey, found that only 29 percent of all Jews in America regularly attend worship services, which would make for a lot of empty seats.

Rabbi Joshua Lobel of Congregation Beth-El in Missouri City, Texas, a suburb of Houston, knows the problem. There's a "significant" Jewish population in the greater Houston area, which he said goes back 200 years to Jews arriving from Europe and elsewhere through the port of Galveston.

Now in his second year in Texas, Rabbi Lobel made a radical decision. Instead of requesting the traditional $198 donation for worship tickets, Congregation Beth-El will be open to all without charge.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for us, as a small synagogue, to offer this to our community," Rabbi Lobel said. "It's certainly new for our synagogue to act in this way."

The rabbi said he hopes to grow the ranks of the congregation by inviting "the community to come to us." Right now, roughly 180 to 190 people worship at Beth-El each week, he said. Rabbi Lobel said he wants to attract those Jews in the area who "might want to check us out but not pay an exorbitant price."

Rabbi Steven C. Wernick, chief executive officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which claims 1.3 million members, understands the conundrum leaders such as Rabbi Lobel face. While formal membership in a synagogue "was a reasonable assumption" in the Jewish community of 50 years ago, such affiliations are more tenuous today, he said. Within the Conservative Jewish movement, he said, "probably close to 90 percent" will attend services during the sacred period this year.

"I think many synagogues probably maintain the sale of High Holy Day tickets as a matter of inertia and as a matter of extra revenue," Rabbi Wernick told the Deseret News.

But practices shouldn't get in the way of vision, Rabbi Wernick said. "The strategic question is, what's our value of welcoming, and what is it that we want to achieve as an outcome of welcoming people into our community," he added.

Instead of charging fees, Rabbi Wernick said some congregations may wish to pre-register attendees online, without charge, so they know who is attending for security reasons as well as to form a database for post-holy day contact.

Free seat tradition

Wolfson, whose 2013 book "Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community" deals with the issue of bringing more unaffiliated Jews into contact with a synagogue, said he was "not surprised Rabbi Lobel is throwing open the doors, because there is a real concern that people are not joining up in the numbers that they used to."

He also recognized an increase in the number of "independent" services facilities rented by a synagogue where, if staffing permits, unaffiliated Jews are welcomed for a worship service on the holy days. He said such services, usually held in larger cities, "require less of a commitment" on the part of a first-time visitor than purchasing tickets or being a member of a synagogue.

"If the congregation can afford to do that, I think it's a terrific thing to do," Wolfson said. "There are large numbers of people in larger Jewish communities such as Los Angeles who will go to a 'pop-up' High Holy Day experience but are not ready to commit to an annual membership" fee.

At Rabbi Lobel's Congregation Beth-El, phones were "ringing quite a bit" five days before the Rosh Hashana holy day begins, said Bill Asnes, chairman of the synagogue's high holy day committee.

Charging for tickets, Asnes said, "was always a good fundraiser for the temple, something we relied on at this time of year. But things are changing. The people are getting younger, and there are a whole lot of interfaith families. If we wanted to grow, and keep up with the times, we had to do what other temples" in the Houston area did.

Alan Morgan, current president of the synagogue said, "we had no pushback from congregants" when the no-fee plan was announced. "So far, they've been happy with our decision, and we're hoping to attract more people" who might otherwise drive into downtown Houston for the holy days.

A tradition of free admission

Chabad Lubavitch has approximately 1,000 branches in North America. Rabbi Eliezrie is a Chabad "shaliach," or emissary, and is a 40-year veteran of the movement.

"This is something we've done from the very beginning" of the Chabad organization, Rabbi Eliezrie said of the free admission policy. "It was a question that we felt Judaism should not be the patrimony of any one person; every Jew should be welcome to worship."

The rabbi expects between 400 and 500 people to attend his congregation's High Holy Day services, and is mailing letters to some 2,000 people in his corner of Orange County to invite them for worship on Yom Kippur.

"We're really giving an opportunity for Jews to rediscover their heritage," Rabbi Eliezrie, author of "The Secret of Chabad: Inside the world's most successful Jewish movement," said. "The inheritance of Judaism, its beauty, its depth, does not belong to the rabbi (alone)."

Rabbi Wernick said that while he didn't have exact numbers, he knew, "anecdotally," that "there are many conservative synagogues not charging" for worship tickets this year.

Dropping ticket prices "removes a barrier" to attending, Rabbi Wernick said, "but the positive incentive is (to make sure) you're offering a Judaism that presents the wisdom for living a life that matters. If you're not doing that, it doesn't matter how many barriers you remove."
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